New CA Governor talks tech, construction at OH Close

Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, Deputy Chief
CDCR Office of External Affairs
Photos by Manny Chavez, CALPIA Senior Photographer
and Terry Thornton, CDCR Deputy Press Secretary

Jason Jones faced a computer lab full of young men, all of whom have made the decision to pursue training in the complex, technical world of software engineering.

“Why coding?” Jones asked.

“Why not?” the group responded, almost entirely in unison.

They have a good point. The tech industry is on pace right now to add 1 million coding jobs by 2020, and California has more than 65,000 positions waiting to be filled immediately. These jobs come with high pay, good benefits and the opportunity to impact millions of people through software development. With the right training, these young men will be on track to build solid careers that will enable them to provide for their families, invest in their personal growth and communities, and build exciting futures.

The difference between this coding school and one in the heart of Silicon Valley? These young men are incarcerated at OH Close Youth Correctional Facility (OH Close), and they’re going to learn how to code without internet access.

Jones is a graduate of Code.7370, a software training program that began at San Quentin State Prison as a partnership of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and The Last Mile (TLM), a tech organization committed to training people impacted by the criminal justice system to enable their successful reentry and stop the cycle of incarceration. Today Code.7370 is teaching offenders coding at San Quentin, Pelican Bay State Prison, California Institution for Women and Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, and TLM has expanded beyond California to institutions in Kansas and Indiana. The 18-month technology-based training program operates under the supervision of CALPIA instructors, technology business professionals and TLM volunteers. Offenders learn basic computer skills, coding instruction, and website and application design in a simulated live coding environment without internet access.

Jones was one of many people in attendance at the grand opening of both Code.7370 and the CALPIA Pre-Apprentice Construction Labor Program at OH Close. Jones, who paroled from San Quentin just three months ago after 13 years in prison, is now employed full-time as a coder for Fandom.

Joining him in encouraging the youth to apply themselves and seize this opportunity was Governor Gavin Newsom, who spent the morning checking out the construction and coding programs, speaking with the youth and sharing his vision for overhauling the juvenile justice system in California. In his proposed 2019-20 state budget, Newsom shared his plan to move the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) youth correctional facilities to a new department operated by the California Health and Human Services Agency, with the aim of increasing the trauma-informed treatment, rehabilitative programs and reentry opportunities provided to young offenders.

Newsom brought with him Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and youth advocate recently named California’s first-ever Surgeon General. Her experience, Newsom explained, has focused on studying the underlying issues for behavior, including Adverse Childhood Experiences, which are proven to have an impact on future violence and victimization. His vision for juvenile justice, Newsom said, is to substantively address systemic issues early on, and combine that work with programs and opportunities like the construction program and coding to set youth up for success.

“Today is about setting that vision,” Newsom said. “What will that new system look like? You got a peek of what that can look like – where we have robust services that are meaningful and purposeful.”

Newsom started his visit at CALPIA’s Pre-Apprentice Construction Labor program, a six-month training program that operates under the supervision of journeyman professionals from the Northern and Southern California Construction and General Laborers Unions. Students earn accredited certifications and are eligible for placement in full-scale apprenticeship programs upon release. CALPIA pays the initial union dues and provides a full set of tools to the men and women who complete the program.

“You’ve signaled in your vision that DJJ programs like these won’t be the exception, they’ll be the norm,” said DJJ Director Chuck Supple. “We foresee under your leadership DJJ continuing to build its capacity to help youth return safely to the community and become responsible and successful adults.”

The idea of teaching coding inside a correctional facility was met with skepticism when presented to then-Undersecretary Ralph Diaz, who now serves as acting CDCR Secretary. Looking at the young men eager to begin their training, and at the alumni who came to OH Close to share their stories, Diaz said it was the passion of TLM founders Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti and CALPIA General Manager Chuck Pattillo that convinced him of the program’s potential.

“If these people care so much, and they see the hope in the individuals who they are going to touch, then it’s the right place in corrections,” Diaz said. “The easiest thing anyone can do when pitched something like this is to say no. But when you say yes, you see hope in the eyes of people like the young people we see here in the apprenticeship labor program and the coding program.”

Redlitz shared that even though he and his wife were the ones who had the idea to start coding in prison, even he would not have believed 10 years ago that this is what it would become. In addition to expanding to 14 classrooms, with the goal to be in 50 within five years, TLM recently received a $2 million grant from Google.org (the tech company’s charitable arm) to educate and certify 525 incarcerated men, women, and youth over the next two years, including the expansion to OH Close in Stockton. As part of the initiative, Google tech experts will volunteer their time to adapt the TLM curriculum for young people and create a virtual lecture series to share their expertise with students.

“This is a life-changing opportunity,” Redlitz told the young coders, adding that the coding program has had a recidivism rate of zero since it began in 2014. “Not one of our graduates who has gone back to society has reoffended. That’s a big challenge for us to maintain, but that’s something that we want to and plan to maintain.”

Superintendent Linda Bridges said she looks forward to seeing the outcomes of the program, as the youth who complete it return to their communities. Teaching skills in industries with big hiring needs, like construction and tech, is a perfect fit for OH Close, she said.

“I hope to provide the youth with the opportunity to build self-esteem and gain marketable job skills, which will help reduce recidivism,” Bridges said.

Standing alongside Diaz, Supple and Governor Newsom in the Code.7370 lab, Jones emphasized to the youth that they are at the beginning of a life-changing program, and to keep the faith that they will succeed. He was skeptical at first too, he said, because he had never seen a coder who looked like him or who had similar experiences. But partnerships for programs like Code.7370 are busting open doors in the technology industry, and coders like Jones and other TLM alumni are moving the field in a new direction.

“I probably don’t look like a coder right now, but five years from now you’re going to see a lot of coders who look like me,” Jones said. “I see a lot of coders in here.”

One of those future coders is Tyrone Ireland, who said Code.7370 will allow him to leave DJJ with skills to carry him into his future. Of all the people who came to OH Close to see the two programs, he said he was most impacted by the Google.org coders, who spent part of the morning introducing the youth to the world of coding.

“They told me that I can do it, as long as I keep trying,” Ireland said.

The many dignitaries present at OH Close to commemorate the opening of both programs included Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, TLM Board Member MC Hammer, and alumnus Aly Tamboura, who learned coding while incarcerated at San Quentin and now works for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative as a program manager for the philanthropic organization’s criminal justice reform work.

“My message to you today is: Don’t give up – this program is real,” Tamboura said. “And with a lot of hard work you’re going to succeed.

When you finish this program and walk out of this place, you have the potential not only to change your life but the lives of your families and your loved ones, the people who you care about.”

Newsom completed the grand opening ceremony by reminding the youth that change only happens if they are committed to it, but that programs like the ones celebrated at OH Close provide opportunities for youth to learn who they are and expand their strengths.

“Build on those attributes and strengths that reside in each and every one of you,” he said. “Your experiences are unique, nobody else has them. I just want to remind you to learn from, don’t follow, others. You don’t have to be like somebody else, because you’re not. Your expression is unique, nobody else has it. Once you discover that, man, everything is possible in life.”

Learn more about CALPIA’s commitment to providing training to offenders throughout California at calpia.ca.gov.
Watch a Facebook Live video from the grand opening at facebook.com/cacorrections.